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Monday, January 26, 2009

Movie Review: Aronofsky's The Wrestler Grapples with Rourke's Past

Mickey Rourke's face - puffed, spongy, semi-mobile, is like a relief map of failure in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, a sports drama that struggles semi-successfully to transcend it's genre. To the degree that it succeeds Rourke, Marisa Tomei, and Aronofsky deserve the credit for sharply grounding the film in reality. Likewise, it's shortcomings are again Aronofsky's - who sometimes uses a staple gun when a thumbtack would do (quite literally) and screenwriter Robert Siegel who sometimes flounders against the mechanics of his plot and some clunky dialogue.

Aronofsky tones down the lyrical visual flourishes of The Fountain to shoot in a spare, hand-held fashion. There are some nice flourishes, the best of which is the constant soundtrack of 80s hair metal. When Rourke laments the rise of Kurt Cobain and the 90s, its the sweeping away of his dreams and his status as a cultural force he is railing against. It's heavy meta, if you will.

Early on Tomei recommends Scorsese's The Passion of The Christ to Rourke, jokingly calling his character "The sacrificial Ram." Not surprisingly that's exactly what he is, a piece of meat thrown into a ring as a lightning rod for his fans hopes and rage and passion - even as he slides down the ladder of his chosen profession.

Tomei, is his spiritual doppelganger, a stripper who equals him in bare chested and buttocked screen time. It's a measure of how far she's come that her high school drama class Brooklynese that inexplicable netted an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny is replaced here by an utterly believable Jersey girl. These are both sweet characters who absorb the blows of the world around them and find their power in the spotlight of the stage even as their bodies begin to betray them.

The real pleasure of this film lie in the backstage sequences - seeing the way younger wrestlers respond to Rourke's Randy the Ram, the business of plotting out the rough action that will occur in the ring, the subtle signals the wrestlers give to each other while grappling, all speak to the film's verisimilitude.

Less real are the scenes with Ram's estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood. They both come across fine but the scenes feel sketched out rather than fully fleshed. This is true too of the climax which is designed to place Ram on his metaphorical cross. It feels like a bit too much in a film full of surprising subtlety.

Let me know what you think here, or on Twitter at @nmallin .

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